City of Lawrence plans to hire more staff to support campsite for those experiencing homelessness

photo by: Lawrence City Commission screenshot

Rick Renfro, the owner of Johnny's Tavern in North Lawrence, addresses a packed Lawrence City Commission meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

Lawrence business owners, residents, social service providers and people experiencing homelessness spoke to city leaders Tuesday evening about the city’s response to homelessness and the management of a camp in North Lawrence.

During the public comment portion of the Lawrence City Commission’s meeting Tuesday, commissioners heard from about 20 people, with a few times that number gathered in the lobby of City Hall, about the issue. Some called for additional support for the camp, and city staff said at the end of the meeting that the city was in the process of hiring additional people to provide more monitoring at the site.

Johnny’s Tavern owner Rick Renfro announced Monday he would temporarily close the business’s North Lawrence location until the city took certain actions regarding the city-run camp for people experiencing homelessness, which is located near Johnny’s back parking lot. Renfro is not asking the city to move the camp, but he does want the city to install fencing around the campsite, provide professional staff for the campsite from at least 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily, and allow professional homeless coordinators to have the final say on how many people the camp can safely accommodate. Renfro said the camp has grown from 40 tents when the city opened it on Oct. 1 to about 90 today.

photo by: Lawrence City Commission screenshot

Rick Renfro, the owner of Johnny’s Tavern in North Lawrence, addresses a packed Lawrence City Commission meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

Renfro was the first to speak at the meeting, and he noted the number of people that had gathered was significant.

“It’s because there’s a lot people out there that want to see something done with this issue — the issue that’s facing our nation, our county and our community,” Renfro said, adding that it was not just homelessness but affordable housing, mental health and other related issues. “A lot of these people are concerned and want to help with a solution.”

Ted Boyle, president of the North Lawrence Improvement Association, said that he agreed something had to be done. He said the situation in North Lawrence was making the neighborhood an “unsafe place” and that there should be tight control over the campsite. A few other residents or business owners also said they either did not feel safe or had experienced issues personally, or that they had concerns about the safety of their staff. Several commenters focused more on the need to provide adequate support to those living in the camp and/or broader support generally for those without housing.

photo by: Lawrence City Commission screenshot

Ted Boyle, president of the North Lawrence Improvement Association, addresses the Lawrence City Commission on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

A few people staying at the camp also spoke to the commission. Among them was a woman, who only gave her name as Sarah, who said she was currently homeless and has been homeless on and off throughout the years. Sarah said that while the camp can get “pretty crazy,” she’s never been raped or mugged in her years of being homeless and she asked whether violent crime had actually gone up around the camp. She said she was “uneasy” about the number of people in the camp, but that the recently erected fence did not help and she wasn’t sure providing staffing for certain hours would either.

“It is kind of an uneasy feeling having close to 90 different people, personalities, men and women, all in one little tent city,” she said, saying there is noise throughout the day and night. “I don’t think this 9 to 2 thing is really going to help much. What’s it going to do but cause more strife? Sure, if you guys feel it helps, you know, but it already feels with this fence honestly like we’re in a frickin’ concentration camp. We are already ostracized by society; people walk by us and look down.”

A few commenters said the camp was more manageable at the beginning when it had fewer people. That included Howard Callahan, who said he was a member of the Bert Nash outreach team and was at the camp two or three days per week. Callahan said smaller groups of people would be easier to manage and he thought there should be multiple sanctioned camping sites.

photo by: Lawrence City Commission screenshot

Melanie Valdez, interim director of the Lawrence Community Shelter, addresses a packed Lawrence City Commission meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

Melanie Valdez, interim executive director of the Lawrence Community Shelter, which in the past has served 125 people, said that the shelter increased its capacity from 40 to 50 people to try to meet the needs of the community. Valdez said that going up by 10 people increased conflicts and concerns, and that she is not sure the shelter could go back to 125.

“The reason that I say that is because, I’ve never seen it, but I’ve heard stories about sexual assaults and violence within (the shelter), and as our mission we cannot do more harm to the people we serve than good,” Valdez said.

Valdez added that she thought the camp was becoming a spectacle and that it was taking an emotional toll on the people out there. She said while she didn’t know the solution, the shelter was willing to do more if it had more support from the community.

“But we can only be as successful as the community makes us and helps us to be,” she said. “And I would invite people to volunteer, to offer services, skills, whatever they have to offer that can help us get into a better position and strengthen our foundation so that we can provide more services.”

In other business, the commission voted 5-0 to set up a committee to study potential changes to the city’s many advisory boards and commissions, including a recommendation to significantly reduce their overall number. The city has 45 boards, commissions, steering committees, governing boards or other related bodies. The commission has previously discussed reducing the number of boards, and earlier this year expressed interest in considering ways to better align the city’s volunteer boards and commissions with the strategic plan the commission adopted in 2021. The committee will study and make recommendations regarding the structure for all boards and commissions and a reduction in their overall number.


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